Let my mother go

Courageous political reformer Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped by Colombian guerrillas who threatened to kill her after a year. As time runs out, her 17-year-old daughter desperately tries to win her release.

Published February 25, 2003 11:48PM (EST)

Seventeen-year-old Melanie Delloye led 1,000 protesters past the Eiffel Tower on Sunday. The throng had gathered not to protest the impending war against Iraq, but rather to mark the one-year anniversary of the kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt. A radical politician who was running for president in Colombia on an anti-corruption platform, she was abducted by Marxist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Betancourt, who lived in Paris for many years, is a cause célèbre in France. But for Melanie, the rally was as personal as it was political: Ingrid Betancourt is her mother, and her time may be running out.

Last Feb. 23 when she was captured, FARC officials set a one-year deadline for the Colombian government to exchange guerrilla prisoners for FARC hostages. After that, they would no longer take responsibility for Betancourt's life. Organized after La Violencia -- the great civil war of the '40s and '50s, which resulted in liberals being chased into the jungles -- FARC guerrillas have been battling the Colombian government for nearly 40 years. Though their roots are in liberalism and communism, over the years that ideology has faded. With control over about a quarter of Colombia's countryside, FARC raises funds by taxing the coca farmers and drug traffickers who use their land. Now, the DEA says FARC has stepped up the drug ladder and is personally wholesaling cocaine. Another source of income: kidnap and ransom.

Ingrid Betancourt was on her way to San Vicente del Caguan, a former FARC safe haven 170 miles south of Bogotá, to campaign when she was snatched from her car by FARC guerrillas. Given her leftist leanings and support for peace negotiations with FARC, Betancourt would seem an unlikely FARC target. However, her high profile made her the perfect bargaining chip. "Lately FARC has been racking up important kidnap victims, like Ingrid Betancourt," says Robin Kirk, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of "More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs, and America's War in Colombia." "They use them to try to force the government into a prisoner exchange."

Melanie was at her home in the Dominican Republic -- where she has been living in exile for three years-- getting dressed to go to a party when her father broke the news: Her mother had been kidnapped. "All I could do was cry," Melanie remembers. "It's like a nightmare and you think you're going to wake up, but you don't."

Now that the one-year deadline has arrived, Melanie is working at a feverish pace to help her mother. To keep sane, she lets loose with her friends -- dancing to Cuban music, or working on an art project. Still, she can't escape the ordeal. "I'll be with my friends and we're laughing out loud," Melanie says in a phone interview. "Then I'll see an image that reminds me of my mom." She pauses, and the telephone line goes silent. "I keep smiling," she continues. "I act as if nothing is happening. But inside I'm torn apart."

Certainly, the violence is tearing her country apart. Earlier this month, in what is considered the worst attack on the capital in a decade, a bomb exploded at an exclusive Bogotá social club killing 35 people and injuring 160 more. On Feb. 14, a team of Colombian policemen was searching a house in an investigation of a plot to kill President Alvaro Uribe when an explosion detonated. At least 15 people were killed, including three children. That same week, a plane went down due to purported engine troubles, in the south of Colombia, in the same region from which Betancourt was snatched. Three of the passengers were American operatives on a drug-related mission and are believed to have been kidnapped. A fourth American and a Colombian army sergeant were found dead at the crash site, both shot to death. (On Saturday, the Pentagon announced that an additional 150 U.S. soldiers would be sent to Colombia to help search for the Americans being held by FARC, though the Defense Department has since backed off of these numbers.)

"A lot of Colombians placed hope in Ingrid Betancourt as a nonviolent reformer: an outsider politician who crusaded against corruption, and a left-winger who strongly criticized the guerrillas," says Adam Isacson, coordinator for the Center for International Policy's Colombia Project. "Though many accused her of being a self-promoter, she was one of the only high-profile voices calling for an overhaul of the political system. By silencing her voice, her captivity has made things easier for the "business as usual" machine politicians who predominate in Bogotá, as well as for the extremists, left and right, who favor reform through increased violence."

The Colombian political scene is an ambiguous mess. Politicians are often found in bed with drug traffickers. FARC has lost most of its ideological resonance and is focused on gaining more money and power, says Kirk. In addition to the guerrilla groups, there's the shadowy influence of paramilitaries -- rogue groups targeting the guerrillas -- who, although illegal, are still accused of acting in cahoots with Colombian authorities. In other words, there are no clear-cut good guys. Betancourt was a steady voice of idealism in this bureaucratic mess. Now her 17-year-old daughter is jumping into this complex political fray to fill that void.

At a time when her peers are worried about boys and homework, Melanie is fighting for her mother's life. In the months leading up to the one-year deadline, she has taken time off from school to travel to Canada and France -- where Betancourt's autobiography, "Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia," was a bestseller -- to speak with government officials, news agencies and her mother's supporters about the solution to Colombia's hostage crisis. When she speaks, she remains poised, believing that facts alone will encourage people to act. "Colombia is a country that's been suffering from violence for 40 years," she says earnestly. "The only way we're going to end this [civil war] is through peace negotiations. I'm convinced that peace can be achieved."

For the moment, neither the Uribe government -- nor the Bush administration -- seems to agree with Melanie. Uribe, whose own father was shot by FARC soldiers, campaigned on an anti-guerrilla platform. "The FARC hard-line -- the ones who want to bring the elite to their knees by bombing their families and kids -- are running things," says Isacson. "The Colombian people and the Colombian government have completely given up on negotiations. And they have a president who says he's going to take the fight to the guerrillas." President Bush is just as hawkish. Last year, his administration made a post-9/11 move to reconstruct the War on Drugs in Colombia to the War on Terror. Congress agreed to lift restrictions on aid -- the U.S. has given more than $2 billion over the past few years -- so that Colombia can use the money to fight guerrilla insurgents. Just last month, the United States sent 70 special forces operatives to train the Colombian military to go into the jungle and root out guerrillas.

Melanie remembers what it was like to live with the threat of guerrilla terrorism. After her parents separated in 1990, she spent her early years in Bogotá with her mother, when drug lord Pablo Escobar was still terrorizing the city. "Bombs would go off in malls and restaurants," she recalls. "One went off near my school. That's not very reassuring when you're 5." Politics is what tied Melanie's family together. Her grandmother, Yolanda Pulecio, was a congresswoman from the Liberal Party, and her grandfather, Gabriel Betancourt, was a minister of education and ambassador to UNESCO. When Melanie was 9, her mother was elected to the House of Representatives and soon made waves speaking out against President Ernesto Samper's ties to the drug cartels and pressuring the government to open talks with FARC.

Around this time Ingrid Betancourt received her first death threat; a graphic photograph of a dismembered child was mailed to her house along with a message: Her children would pay for her political actions. Melanie and her younger brother, Lorenzo, immediately fled the country by plane, the first of many terrifying escapes that would mark their childhood. In the ensuing years, they lived with their mother whenever they could, but for safety reasons ended up spending several years abroad with their father, a French diplomat. They were in Bogotá in 2001 when their mother decided to run for president. Ingrid and her children had long discussions about their safety and finally decided that it would be better for them to hide out in the Dominican Republic with their father.

"We discussed the possibility of my mom dying a lot, because politicians in Colombia are normally eliminated -- they're killed," Melanie says. "My mom wanted us to feel really OK with it." But Melanie never truly became accustomed to the idea. "I wished so many times that someone else could do what she's doing and that my mom could be a normal mom," Melanie admits. "But who's going to do it if not her?"

Last March, a month after Betancourt was kidnapped, Melanie's grandfather died. When she returned to Colombia for the funeral, she was forced to step into the reality of her mother's disappearance. "The moment I walked off the plane, I started crying. I guess subconsciously, I hoped my mother would be there to greet us like she always did," Melanie admits. "Going back to her apartment was difficult, seeing her bed empty and smelling her creams. It was really emotional, but I needed to experience that. I had to go to Colombia to feel her absence."

For the past year, Melanie has been traveling around the globe speaking about her mother's cause. By keeping Betancourt's story alive, she hopes she can persuade the Uribe administration to start a new round of peace negotiations with FARC. Melanie's voice rises whenever she discusses the tangled political mess in Colombia. Although she's lived outside of the country for more than half her life, she still considers it home. "There are so many people that don't know what's happening in Colombia," she says. "They don't know that there are 3,000 hostages. They don't know that people are killed every day. And if they don't know, they can't help."

It's hard to dampen such idealism with cold hard facts, but the truth is, the situation in Colombia is unlikely to improve anytime soon. "FARC's last declaration was so rigid and disappointing," says Isacson. "Basically, it said, 'We want all of our people released from jail.' And that's just never going to happen. I see negotiating as the only way to get the prisoners released and hope the Uribe government gives it a serious effort. The FARC's demand is discouraging, though. I hope that it is just an opening position and they're willing to come down from that and compromise."

Kirk agrees: "You're talking about a very well armed and very determined guerrilla army which has absolutely no intention of giving [Betancourt] up. The history of rescue attempts is really horrible in Colombia; a lot of people get killed. And people who have gone in to negotiate have themselves been kidnapped. This will go on and on."

Last July, after months of not knowing where Ingrid was, let alone if she was alive, Melanie's family received the first -- and only -- proof that she wasn't dead. Melanie was vacationing in France with her father when a videocassette of her mother arrived in Bogotá, after being passed through the hands of various humanitarian organizations. When she watched the tape, Melanie saw her mother, hair pulled back into a bun, wearing what looked like army fatigues. She looked tired and thin, her complexion darkened from the long daily treks through the jungle. Though subdued, she scolded then President Andres Pastrana for ignoring the plight of the kidnap victims.

Hostages who have been released tell a chilling tale of life in captivity. They're given very little food, kept in pens, and subjected to the constant fear that every day might be their last. "My mother is constantly guarded by soldiers, their guns pointed at her," Melanie says. "It's really a horrible life." The press didn't see the last 15 minutes of the tape -- private messages to each of Betancourt's family members. "She said she knew I was strong and that she wished she could be with me for every moment of my life," Melanie says quietly. "She said that she missed me so much but she would be back and I would be able to hold her in my arms again."

Melanie is remarkably similar to her mother, both in looks and intensity. She has the same thick brown hair and open face. Like Ingrid, she has a quiet voice backed by a surprising passion. She speaks quickly in English, which is her third language, after French and Spanish. "When I see how much Colombia suffers, it breaks my heart," she says, sounding very much like Ingrid. "I understand my mother's fight completely." Yet while she is consumed by her mother's situation -- Betancourt's family has asked for further proof of life but so far hasn't received it -- at the end of the day, Melanie is still a young woman trying to shape her own future. "I hang out with my friends, I go to school, I study," she says. "It's important that I do all these things because I need to find balance." The only thing Melanie can really do at this point, however, is to keep fighting the good fight and hoping for the best. No one knows what FARC is planning to do with Betancourt, or any of the other hundreds of prisoners being held captive in the Amazonian jungle. "Sometimes I feel helpless because it's not like I can go out there and rescue my mom," Melanie says. "There's nothing as horrible as waiting."

By Caroline Sorgen

Caroline Sorgen, a New York-based writer, also writes for Teen People and More.

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